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Super Bowl ad winners? Budweiser and fuzzy feelings

If the Denver Broncos struggled to put the ball in the end zone in Sunday’s Super Bowl, this year’s crop of commercials had no problem scoring with viewers' emotions. 

While advertisers once leaned on bikini babes and bawdy jokes, marketers in this year’s game relied on touching messages and humorous nostalgia to garner buzz. 

Take Anheuser-Busch’s (BUD) Super Bowl spots. The clear winner of the night was its “Puppy Love” ad for Budweiser, according to a CBS News panel and several Super Bowl ad rankings. The ad tugged at viewers’ emotions by showing an adorable puppy who can’t stay away from his buddy, a Clydesdale horse. The commercial starred Don Jeanes, the same actor who won over viewers in the brand’s popular 2013 Super Bowl ad “Brotherhood.” 

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 Aside from scoring the highest with CBS News’ viewer panel, “Puppy Love” scored first in USA Today’s annual Super Bowl ad meter rankings. It was given an “A” by the Kellogg School of Management’s Super Bowl advertising review

What’s at stake is more than just a few chuckles during Super Bowl parties and a flurry of tweets and chatter about favorite ads. As the biggest TV event of the year, advertisers often spend upwards of $10 million to buy air time, produce a commercial, and promote it before and after the event. Winners are rewarded by gaining new fans — and potential customers — while the flops end up on the losing end of a massive investment. 

“Super Bowl ads were once dominated by simple themes, scantily clad women and cheap laughs, but now has evolved into a platform for more complex emotions,” Carl Marci, chief science officer at the consumer research company Innerscope Research, told CBS MoneyWatch in an email. “We saw that last night. The brands that succeeded were those willing to dig into these emotions to make a personal connection.”

 A Super Bowl ad’s shelf life has been extended by social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube, providing brands with an opportunity to promote their ads before and after the game. In a way, that’s raised the stakes for marketers. 

Social media “provides the opportunity to continue the discussion past the airing of the ads, and it gives you a greater return on your investment,” said Tom Hartman, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Networked Insights. 

Budweiser’s moving “A Hero’s Welcome,” which showed a U.S. soldier's homecoming, scored as the third-most popular commercial in USA Today's ranking, and also earned an “A” from Kellogg. The company's Bud Light commercial, "Epic Night," was less of a hit.

Humorous nostalgia also produced some winning Super Bowl commercials. One surprise winner was RadioShack (RSH), which earned laughs and favorable buzz with its spot, called “The Phone Call.” In it, a RadioShack clerk is surprised to get a call from the 1980s. “They want their store back,” he tells the other clerk. A rowdy group of 1980s celebrities barges in, including Erik Estrada from “CHiPs” and the claymation California Raisins, to tear the store apart. 

RadioShack, which has been struggling to reinvent itself in the digital age, ended up as one of the most 10 discussed brands on social media, according to Networked Insights. The ad sparked more than 73,000 social media discussions, placing the retailer at No. 8, trailing Bud Light, according to the group’s social media rankings. 

Another winner was the Cheerios ad from General Mills (GIS), which featured a biracial family that had been used in a 2013 ad. The original ad had sparked a racist backlash, which in turn prompted calls of support for the cereal maker. The Super Bowl ad, called “Gracie,” was “charming” and “built the imagery of the brand,” Kellogg said, giving it an “A.”

So which companies bombed with their adds in this year's Super Bowl? 

GoDaddy flopped with its spot, “Bodybuilder,” which featured a crowd of stripped-down bodybuilders racing to a tanning parlor, a change from the company’s reliance on scantily clad women. The ad didn’t make the top 10 most discussed brands on social media, marking a 95 percent decrease in buzz from last year, Networked Insights found. The spot also ranked in the bottom five among USA Todays’s Ad Meter, while Kellogg gave it a “D.” 

“This year they changed their tune and it just didn’t pan out,” Networked Insights lead data analyst Sean Reckwerdt said. “People expected a little bit of edge from them.”

Another loser was Sprint’s “Framily Plan” spot, which ranked in the bottom five of USA Today’s Ad Meter rankings and “didn’t really break through the Super Bowl clutter,” Kellogg noted. 

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